Among all of the saints, our parish’s patron saint, Basil, offers some of the most pioneering examples of tangible Orthodox discipleship to Jesus Christ. Of course he wasn’t inventing new Christian doctrine, but rather, he was incredibly inventive in leading the Church toward practical ways of offering love. He stands above the rest as one of Christendom’s primary witnesses on how an entire community is taught the way to salvation through a creative embodying of cooperation with the Holy Spirit, leading us toward a loving participation with Jesus Christ…as a living fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven. How can this be, that an Orthodox Christian saint…steeped in the Church’s Tradition…could be such a dynamic model for inventiveness? This is one of the things that makes Saint Basil so great!
He was born in the year 330 in Caesarea, which was Cappadocia’s governmental center. He descended from a family of nobles, famous for their business expertise, their remarkable wealth…and their unquenchable zeal for the Christian Faith. St Basil spent the first years of his life on a wealthy estate belonging to his parents, being cultured and enlightened by his mother Emilia and grandmother Macrina (who also later became regarded as great saints). As a young boy, Saint Basil was homeschooled by his father, a brilliant orator and lawyer. Later, Basil transferred to a school in Constantinople, where he was taught by the city’s most eminent orators and philosophers. Finally, he completed his schooling in Athens…the center of the best classical education that money could buy.
After only four or five years in Athens, Basil had mastered everything he studied. “He studied all subjects thoroughly…more than most people would put into studying even a single subject. He studied each science in its entirety, as though nothing else mattered. It was here that he became famously regarded as a philosopher, linguist, speechmaker, attorney, and naturalist…also holding expert understandings of astronomy, mathematics, business and medicine.
After Saint Basil’s father died, his mother, Emilia, his oldest sister, Macrina, and several female servants began to live as nuns on the family estate. Inspired by the fervor of their faith, he also now decided to devote himself to the life of an ascetic. He was baptized and was tonsured a Reader. As such…he consistently read the Holy Scriptures to the people, and then explained them. He was ordained a deacon at 32 years old, and then two years later to the priesthood…preaching daily. When the Bishop of Caesarea died, St Basil was chosen, at 40 years old to replace him as bishop.
Suddenly, he was thrust into enormous political struggles because of a powerful heretical group known as the Arians, who wrongfully taught that God’s Son didn’t exist from before all time…insisting rather that God’s Son was a created being. Saint Basil, however, overwhelmed the Arians with his powerful public debates against them, and he used his writings to soundly rebuff their poisonous heretical beliefs. The people then nicknamed Saint Basil, “The Bee,” because he stung the Church’s enemies…yet nourished his flock with the sweet honey of his teaching.
During his time as bishop, there was a terrible drought throughout the land…and thus also a great famine. Many came to the Church in Caesarea seeking help. Our beloved Saint Basil had great compassion and sought to offer them some relief. Thus, outside Caesarea, on largely undeveloped land, Saint Basil began building a charitable new town, beginning with a chapel at its center, staffing every office of services throughout the town with monastics who were especially skilled in various vocations and trades (like blacksmithing and carpentry). These dedicated monastics took the lead in organizing the day-to-day activities of this new town’s residents and also in caring for the poor and the sick. This new charitable center became known as Basilías (“the Kingdom,” since it reflected the Kingdom of Heaven and its economy…and also because it reflected what can happen when we let God’s love and His will rule over our hearts).
This new town of Saint Basil’s contained innovative institutions to deal with the challenges of his day, such as a hospital; a leper clinic; residences for travelers and the poor; and small commercial facilities or manufacturing workshops for teaching and practicing trades…such as carpentry or blacksmithing. In this new Basilías…with the Church’s liturgical and sacramental life at its center…the poor were given work and were even trained in trades of various kinds, so that they could become self-sustaining. Projects like these were largely unheard of in the 4th century Cappadocian Church, or anywhere else for that matter. They came from the resourceful imagination of Saint Basil, as various means of offering love to people who were facing the major problems of his day. As the Basilías grew, it attracted poor immigrants from many other places, some rather distant, who upon their arrival were also enrolled in its program of charity and work. In modern estimations, this sounds like it would be a financial disaster, but between the work of the Holy Spirit & Saint Basil’s groundbreaking, tangible approach to “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” it had surprising consequences. His new Basilías project actually flourished, overtaking Caesarea as the “New Caesarea”…while the old Caesarea fell into deterioration, eventually becoming a ghost town. Saint Basil’s approach (or rather, God’s approach of offering love to suffering neighbors in tangible ways) fostered a self-sustaining, blossoming economy for the inhabitants of his metropolis. Yes, Saint Basil and his flock had an interior “spiritual” life…but it was balanced with an Orthodox understanding that such a life must physically bear forth the fruit of God’s loving Kingdom into the lives of the suffering around us.
As we remember our Patron Saint, Basil, let’s remember how his life exemplified the very “nature of being” we sing about in his hymn each Sunday when we give honor to his Christlike life. The Orthodox Church was never meant to be a museum where we come to admire our saints as if they were mere fossils. We were never meant to woodenly sing hymns about the saints as though they no longer offered any transformation for our lives. We are meant to follow our saints’ holy example…not just passively admire them for their piety. When we sing about “the sound of Saint Basil’s voice going throughout the lands with teachings that divinely explain the nature of being…and….that give a rule of life for man”…we need to remember that, following his example (who was actually following Christ’s example) we’re supposed to be doing that too. In fact, it’s a matter of life and death for us…determining whether we flourish like Saint Basil’s Basilías…or fall into decay like the old Caesarea. Following the example of his ways, the sound of our voice must also go throughout the lands with teachings that divinely explain the nature of being (the Church’s teachings). Why else are we here? Otherwise, we’ve resigned ourselves to merely giving lip service to what we claim to believe. Otherwise we’ve turned our backs on what it means to love God & love our neighbor.
So in the spirit of our beloved patron, for the sake of our own souls, let’s begin to ponder together, “What do those around us suffer with the most? Being led by the Holy Spirit, let’s begin to determine how we, as our Lord’s Basilias (His Kingdom), can begin to offer tangible love to the particular struggles of our neighbors in San Jose?